Conservation groups sue EPA over Florida manatee deaths caused by 'avoidable' pollution

Conservation groups sue EPA over Florida manatee deaths caused by ‘avoidable’ pollution

Three environmental groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which they say has failed to adequately protect Florida manatees water pollution and starvation. The groups want the EPA to reevaluate water quality standards for Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, an “important” warm-water habitat for manatees.

“Manatees need clean water to live, it’s as simple as that,” attorney Elizabeth Forsyth said in a statement. “Pollution in the Indian River Lagoon is preventable. We call on the EPA to step in and ensure the protection of the Indian River Lagoon and the species that depend on it.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Manatee Club and Defenders of Wildlife, pollution of manatee habitats by “sewage treatment discharges, septic tank leaks, fertilizer runoff and other sources” has fueled algal bloom in the Indian River Lagoon. The bloom both kills seagrass beds, a staple food source for manatees, and prevents them from growing back quickly

In 2021, a record 1,000 manatees died, mostly due to starvation, leading the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the deaths as an unusual mortality event (UME) that “requires an immediate response”.

The EPA is responsible for certifying water quality criteria for certain chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The lawsuit claims the current standards for the Indian River Lagoon were approved nearly 10 years ago after studies concluded that manatees would not be ‘adversely’ affected – a conclusion contradicted by current mortality rates manatees.

At Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Fla., manatees frolic near the main spring, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.

Orlando Sentinel/Getty Images

“Florida’s beloved manatees will continue to suffer and die as long as the EPA maintains inadequate water quality standards,” Jane Davenport, senior counsel at Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. “The EPA simply has no time to waste to revive the consultation.”

Citing the Endangered Species Act, the groups are calling on the EPA to “relaunch consultation” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service and reevaluate the state’s water quality standards. ‘Indian River Lagoon. A further reassessment would allow state agencies to tackle pollution, hopefully improving water conditions and food sources for manatees.

“While nothing we do will bring back these nearly 1,000 manatees who have suffered and died from years of neglect despite repeated warnings, we urge the EPA to partner with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and to the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure improved water quality standards are quickly established and met to end this travesty,” said Patrick Rose, aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

As manatees were downgraded from an endangered species to a threatened species in 2017, rising mortality rates and poor water quality prompted researchers to ask the EPA to help them save them. According to the non-profit organization Save the Manatee, there are only about 6,000 manatees left all over Florida.

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